A Tale Of Two Singles: Are Major Labels Producing Better Hip Hop?










Last April, The Smoking Section wrote up an excellent article on the “label that’s figured it all out;” namely, Atlantic Records. Atlantic is the home of artists like Wiz Khalifa and B.o.B, not to mention Plies, Musiq Soulchild, Diggy Simmons and Trey Songz. The Smoking Section article focused on the transition between the former three artists’ emersion as independent entities in contrast to their album releases through the label. Both Wiz and B.o.B. had built up venerable online followings, and their fans were clamoring for a proper release. The hype was a result of critically acclaimed mixtapes like Kush & OJ and Hi! My Name is B.o.B. Lupe had already released two critically and commercially acclaimed albums via Atlantic, The Cool and Food and Liquor, but it had been four years since the release of The Cool and both Lupe and the label were in drastically different places. The resulting albums, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby RayRolling Papers and Lasers, all went RCAA Gold, an impressive feat for a label in our contemporary commercial music landscape. The label had been able to do what few others could; turn out consistent commercially successful hip hop albums.

That’s where the trouble starts though. Are any of the three previously mentioned albums actually hip hop records? Sure, the are rapped verses, familiar song structure, and appearances by guests like T.I., Eminem and Curren$y, but the albums prove to be a thinly veiled facade covering a disconnected series of singles. For example, the amount of mushy bullshit on Lasers is astounding, considering the completeness and conceptual genius of The Cool. The album serves as a vehicle to get “The Show Goes On” (a thinly veiled rip-off of the Modest Mouse classic) radio play and into GM commercials. Just before the album was released, Lupe stated in an interview with Complex that he hated the album and was forced to make “The Show Goes On.” Granted, Lupe has been a little erratic over the past several years, but it’s hard to imagine an artist of his caliber willingly succumbing to the creation of an album that panders as much as Lasers. It’s easier to see Wiz and B.o.B. abandoning their creative chops for a chance at commercial success, as it is somewhat doubtful that those chops existed in the first place, but they too turned out disgustingly thin albums.

What’s the point? In the past few weeks, two of the most hyped young rappers in hip hop, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, released singles in anticipation of their respective upcoming albums. Both also happen to be associated with major labels; Kendrick with Universal, and A$AP with Sony. While I would argue that Kendrick is still under the Top Dawg Entertainment banner, it’s hard to ignore the influence that Universal might have over the upcoming Good Kid in a Mad City. Now, obviously Sony and Universal don’t have quite the penchant for turning promising rappers to the dark side that is commercial pop, but both have turned out their fair share of awful radio-ready puffballs in recent years. I believe that both A$AP and Kendrick are miles beyond Wiz and B.o.B. in terms of pure lyrical talent, beat selection and their respective posses, but again, it’s hard to ignore the effect of major labels. (Continue after the jump)

Coming back to the music, both new singles, Kendrick’s Dr. Dre assisted “The Recipe” and Rocky’s “Goldie,” are excellent tracks that should bring both artists to tens of thousands of new fans. I was lucky enough to catch both artists at Coachella this past weekend and heard “The Recipe” not once, but twice. “Goldie” was one of the highlights of Rocky’s set, alongside established hits from LiveLoveA$AP like “Wassup” and “Peso.” Kendrick ripped through “The Recipe” during his Friday afternoon set before reappearing during Dre and Snoop’s Sunday closing set to perform the track again. Kendrick’s exasperated flow turned out to be the highlight of the latter set as he upstaged legends like Dre, Snoop, Warren G, Kurupt and Em (not gonna touch on the hologram issue). Both tracks were highlights of the weekend and proved that neither artist is going away anytime soon.

But what differentiates Kendrick and Rocky from Wiz and B.o.B.? Besides the obvious talent gap, the artists share quite a few similarities. Wiz’s Taylor Gang aesthetic and adherence to the “crew lifestyle” is eerily similar to Rocky’s A$AP Mob. Kendrick got an early co-sign from Dre while B.o.B. was put on the map by T.I.. All four artists built followings through a savvy internet presence and a series of consistent, free mixtapes. I cannot definitively say that Kendrick and Rocky have more dignity than Wiz and B.o.B., because I do not know any of the artists personally. I cannot say that Sony and Universal are more ethical organizations than Atlantic, hell bent on producing quality product, because honestly, they’re not. Their goal is to make money and they’re just not as good as Atlantic at achieving that goal. There’s still a chance Sony and Universal will bury Kendrick and Rocky in the coming months via a series of push backs, but as of now, that appears unlikely. Both have seen a meteoric rise over the past year and do not look like they’re slowing down. Coachella reaffirmed that much for me.

I wish I had some sort of cohesive answer to these questions. I don’t think quality control is getting better at major labels and I can only hypothesize that Kendrick and A$AP are anomalies. They slipped through the cracks of their respective label’s commercialist machinations. The A&R’s had senior moments while listening to “The Recipe” and “Goldie” and mistook them for the next 2 Chainz or Roscoe Dash banger. Maybe Dr. Dre has more pull than we thought and managed to push his prodigy through the major label muck. Maybe Rocky and Clams Casino’s meteoric rise was felt beyond the Pitchforkians and backpackers. Will Sony be dropping that new Action Bronson tape? One can dream. Will Warner be releasing the new Spaceghostpurrp LP? That’s laughable. More likely than not, we’ll be seeing more Future, Flo Rida and Tyga releases pimped to the masses via pop radio, Best Buy and Reebok. I’m just going to hold onto to this irregularity in the biz for the next few months before retreating back to hugging my old Stones Throw and Def Jux tapes.

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